LONDON, United Kingdom — On a rainy Thursday evening at his design studio in a 1960s modernist building in London’s Hackney, the art director David James marked ten years as the creative director of AnOther Magazine with a party to fete the launch of a digital exhibition called ‘Everything That Matters.’ As the drummer Antonio Sanchez’s noir, improvisational jazz from Birdman (James’ favourite film from 2014) reverbed around the dim, concrete-floored room, pages torn straight from the magazine, pasted to temporarily erected boards and illuminated by spotlights, displayed the lead characters of James’ work: fashion models, but also Thurston Moore, Uma Thurman, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.
In one image, shot by Craig McDean, Johansson is semi-déshabillé but for a floral bathrobe and muddied knees, lying on the floor of cheaply carpeted room and looking knowingly into the camera, leaving this viewer wondering about the before and after that surrounds the moment captured in the photograph. In another image, Phoenix, shot in black and white with a cigarette hanging languorously from his mouth, does a convincing Jean-Paul Belmondo from Jean Luc Goddard’s 1960 film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless).
Mise-en-scène matters to James, who, alongside his work for AnOther Magazine, has art-directed advertising campaigns for Prada, a key client for almost 20 years. There is a cinematic quality to much of his work, which conveys a level of narrative and character development that extends far beyond the frame of the photograph. “Cinema is still an important reference for me and everybody,” he says. “Characters in film are very inspiring and after all fashion is really about characters. It’s about context, the environment, the reflection of the prevailing times we live in.”
If you’re interested in art direction in fashion it’s not enough to look at fashion. You have to look at everything.
For his first Prada campaign, in 1997, James was asked to radically change the way that accessories were portrayed in advertising. “There was a brief from Prada of how to solve the problem of presenting leather goods so that the bags and the shoes wouldn’t be just still life pictures; so that they were as important to the fashion narrative as the clothes themselves.” James turned to the cinema for ideas. “We presented some film references, Italian Realism like Fellini etcetera… That was well received so we were given the campaign.”
In the resulting campaign’s gloomy, natural looking lighting, Amber Valetta lies in a wooden boat drifting away from a scene of destruction and burning pyres. She wears a dress that resembles a 19th century undergarment. The handle of her bag is a large grey chain, wrapped round her wrist. With dishevelled hair and minimal make up, Valetta is cast as an escaped prisoner, stealing away in the dead of night, the accessories becoming part of a wider, intensely captivating story.
Even in shoots that are not overtly cinematic, there is always a strong sense of character in James’s work. The models or actors in his images know something that may only be enigmatically communicated. This remains true in his latest Spring/Summer 2015 campaign for Prada. “I liked the idea of creating a character that could represent the different facets of a personality — the fun side, the experimental side, their psychedelic side and their serious side. We wanted to create a juxtaposition and contradiction, because people are contradictory.”
As an art director, James is positioned at the intersection of stylists, photographers, models, set designers and make up artists. And, much like a conductor of an orchestra, or a film director, he must ensure that all these elements work harmoniously to communicate a coherent idea — a world. “The role of an art director is to bring all of it together and package it in a way that it all makes sense and that reflects the ideas,” says James.
James was born and educated in Manchester. His first paid gig, working as a commercial sign painter (while studying at the local design college), was rather more modest than his current stature might suggest. “I did shop signs, things like that. I became quite good at it. When I look back I think it must have been one of the things that got me into typography. Font design. Technology wasn’t around like it is today. It had to be done by hand.”
After holding graphic design jobs in Manchester and Edinburgh, James plunged headfirst into 1980s London. “There was great buzz coming from London at the time. In 1987, there was a boom in the economy, my friends worked for themselves. They were photographers or fashion designers and stylists.” His budding interesting is style was heightened by a fascination with musicians like David Bowie and Joy Division. “Music pretty much got me into fashion,” he says. In fact, his earliest design work included a number of era-defining record sleeves. “I did Neneh Cherry ‘The Buffalo Stance’ and I became connected to [influential stylist] Ray Petri and that whole Buffalo scene — it was very fashion led. I did Soul II Soul and Boy George. The stylist Judy Blame was key to my development because he championed me at that time and we worked together on different projects. That was a big leg up.”
At the young age of 25, rather than work for someone else, James founded his own agency. “I don’t think I was very employable, really. I just had my own ideas about things and I wanted to do things my way,” he recounts. “I think it’s that attitude of my post-punk days — you know, do it yourself.”
He built up a client base in fashion, as the photographers and stylists he had worked with on music projects moved into the industry. “I started working with a generation of photographers such as David Sims, Glen Luchford, Craig McDean. They were friends and we grew up together professionally.”
Luchford and McDean recruited James to work with them on advertising campaigns for several fashion brands, including Prada. Following that first campaign, starring Amber Valetta, the relationship between James and Miuccia Prada gelled so well that they have collaborated ever since, throughout the commercial boom that saw Prada become a global luxury behemoth. “Of course, as the brand becomes globalized with hundreds of shops around the world, there are different criteria to promote the brand. But it’s still a creative challenge — that hasn’t changed — and you’ve still got to create appropriate imagery and for that particular season… The company has just gotten a lot bigger, so there’s a lot more to do.”
James also takes great pleasure in manipulating tactile materials and typography, evidenced by the oft-instagrammed invitations he produces for Prada, which usually have a subtle, playful element. Each season, James and his design team play hide and seek with attendees, rethinking how to reveal the information contained in the show invite through ingenious manipulations of paper. While James may now have a team of twenty people working in his design studio, and decades of experience working at the highest levels, he’s not above noticing the small things. When he spots a homemade anti-slip fix using ‘Sugru’ on the iPad being used to record this interview, he conducts his own interrogation: “What are the red bits on the corners? How was it done?” Indeed, James’ design antennae are always on.
“If you’re interested in art direction in fashion it’s not enough to look at fashion,” he advises. “You have to look at everything. You have to pay attention to everything around you. Film, music, literature, art, people — and you have to notice. Extract from that what really turns you on.”